Tobacco companies and anti-smoking forces are waging a fierce public relations battle here in Ohio. It’s all leading up to Tuesday’s election, when voters will decide whether to maintain the smoking status quo (Issue 4, backed by big tobacco) or to ban smoking in public places entirely (Issue 5).
Smokers may win one more round in my state, but we all know that tobacco is soon to become a complete social taboo — if not this year, very soon. It’s already happened in California, New York and 11 other states in one form or another. Eventually our stodgy Midwestern Buckeyes will come around.
In the central Ohio town of Marysville, one company has taken the campaign against smoking to an entirely new level. Since late last year, the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company has been rolling out a complete ban on smoking among its workforce — on or off the job. That’s right. You may not be a smoker and work for Scotts. And if nicotine shows up in random testing, you could see a pink slip in your mailbox.
According to the Wall Street Journal‘s initial coverage of this story, Scotts employs 5,300 and estimates that about 30% are smokers. CEO Jim Hagedorn promised to work with employees who make a good-faith effort to quit, but he seems determined to promote a healthier workforce and to cut healthcare costs. This story created quite a publicity splash last December, including this favorable piece on CBS News.
What’s curious about this story is that the quit-or-be-fired deadline passed in October with little media fanfare. After more than an hour of Web searching, I found only this one story from Channel 5 in Boston telling of a Scotts employee who says he was terminated for a positive nicotine test. If dismissals are more widespread, they’ve escaped media scrutiny. Who knows, maybe the policy worked as Scotts hoped it would.
Those who value good health and hate big tobacco are cheering the Scotts policy. The company argues that smokers cost them more in medical benefits and hurt the company’s bottom line. Besides, isn’t the company doing its employees a favor by offering such a major “incentive” to quit?
But if you have libertarian leanings, and I do, you’re bristling a bit at Scott’s new policy. After all, this company is telling you it’s no longer permissible to engage in an entirely legal, taxed-by-Uncle-Sam activity. Some see it as an intrusion on the private lives of employees; others see it as a policy shift that imposes an unfair burden on longtime, loyal workers. Fact is, 30 states have laws that prevent employers from limiting the legal, off-duty activities of employees. Ohio, where most Scotts employees reside, isn’t one of those states.
So it’s a classic ethical dilemma pitting the rights of the community, in this case the Scotts company, against the rights of the individual. Argue ’til you’re blue in the face. Both sides are right to some degree.
The Scotts’ case presents an interesting public relations opportunity that meshes with the company’s policy of promoting employee wellness, and with a national trend in the same vein. Scotts opened a $5-million employee fitness center and made changes in food and drink served in company facilities — from cafeterias to vending machines. In addition to reimbursing employees for the cost of smoking cessation programs, Scotts requires and pays for workers to undergo mandatory health assessments by WebMD Health Corp. If they don’t, they’ll find themselves subjected to higher insurance premiums. Scotts said it will randomly test 20% of its workers for nicotine use each year.
Despite my libertarian nature, I’m supporting Scotts on this issue, even if the policy is a bit paternalistic. When it comes to smoking, it’s time to put the rights of the community ahead of the rights of individuals. Smoking is a destructive behavior that hurts us all, and it goes beyond second-hand smoke. It goes to insurance costs, lost productivity — even higher dry-cleaning bills. It goes beyond individual freedom. I simply don’t believe there is a “right” to smoke if it interferes with the rights of others, as it almost always does.
I must disclose that Scotts has supported our program at Kent State, serving as a client for the “Campaigns” class a few years back and making a $5,000 contribution for the privilege — same as all our other clients in that class.
But as semi-reformed smoker (I still sneak a few when I’m having a Burning River Pale Ale at Ray’s Place), I know when the good of the community and the good of the individual align. This is one of those times.